Calls for downtown Liquor Mart closure criticized

Calls made to close downtown Winnipeg liquor store
Global's Erik Pindera speaks to associate professor Curtis Pankratz about public health

Dustin Harper taps at the bottle of inexpensive sherry concealed in his sleeve in front of the Hargrave Street and Ellice Avenue Liquor Mart just before noon Thursday.

When he hears there have been calls to shutter the Liquor Mart location because of the amount of cheap sherry it sells, Harper shakes his head.

“It won’t change,” he says.

“It won’t change at all. They’ll just go to another liquor store.”

READ MORE: Teens arrested after video of ‘chaotic’ Liquor Mart theft posted online

Provincial Liberal leader Dougald Lamont says he had a meeting with Mayor Brian Bowman to discuss city issues a few months ago, where they spoke about addictions issues and media reports about the high number of bottles of cheap sherry sold at the location.

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That led Lamont to call for the store to be closed and criticize Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries in the process — though he notes shuttering one store isn’t his end goal.

“It’s not just a question of thinking if we close this down everything’s going to be fine,” Lamont says.

“We need to make sure we’re doing a better job of providing people with addictions treatment… but that’s not what’s happening right now.

“Basically, the solution that the liquor store has come up with is to sell this booze, to sell cheap booze so people have something to drink that’s not even worse … That’s no way to run addictions treatment.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Bowman confirmed he supports the liquor store closing, telling Global News the idea was brought forward by local businesses.

READ MORE: Uncorked: Winnipeg’s ‘drunk tank’ taking tremendous pressure off emergency crews

University of Winnipeg associate professor Curtis Pankratz thinks limiting access to inexpensive alcohol could be part of good policy, if coupled with improved alcohol addictions treatment.

“The drinking, the access to cheap liquor, is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself,” says Pankratz, a sociologist with expertise in social stratification, population health, and inequality.

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“The problem is very likely to migrate because one of the key questions is, what are some of the people trying to escape when they use?”

“These are escapist drugs, and alcohol is one of many. If the goal is to escape and we take access away in one place, it’s very likely that it will move.”

Pankratz also warns policies like this can be paternalistic.

“Vulnerable people (can) become a population that is not really seen as a group of humans, so much as people that need to be cared for from the outside.”

READ MORE: True North’s Mark Chipman to rally businesses, politicians for $40M addictions centre

Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries does not support closing its Hargrave and Ellice store.

“If removing economy sherry products from the shelves would stop high-risk drinkers from overconsuming alcohol, we would strongly consider taking this measure,” MLL sprokesperson Andrea Kowal said in an email statement, noting the corporation spent $4.3 million on addictions treatment and support programs in the past fiscal year.

There are at least five beer vendors within walking distance of the Hargrave and Ellice store, a Liquor Mart in Cityplace mall, and a planned liquor store in True North Square.

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Pankratz notes high sherry sales in a particular area could act as a barometer for the effectiveness of addictions programs.

“Another way to do it is say ‘We’ve got to target intervention programs in that area and let’s see if we can get those sherry sales down.’ If you close the store, you might lose that.”

Lamont points to managed alcohol programs — where people with severe addictions are given controlled access to alcohol to manage withdrawals — as an example Manitoba should follow.

MLL’s Kowal notes the Crown corporation has participated in discussions about a managed alcohol program in Winnipeg.

READ MORE: Teens arrested after video of ‘chaotic’ Liquor Mart theft posted online

Back in front of the Hargrave and Ellice Liquor Mart, Harper agrees more needs to be done to help people with alcohol addiction.

“Get something happening like (Alcoholics Anonymous meetings) nearby so they can seek help,” Harper says, noting his long-time partner died of complications related to alcohol abuse.

“Shutting this liquor store down ain’t going to change nothing.”

New liquor mart security features similar to those in other commercial stores
New liquor mart security features similar to those in other commercial stores